Volunteers set sail on Christmas Day in hope of helping refugees

Rescue workers on board the Alan Kurdi launch Mediterranean Christmas Day operation off Libyan coast.

Alan Kurdi rescue ship
A Christmas tree light in the window of the Alan Kurdi rescue ship [Sally Hayden/Al Jazeera]

Mediterranean Sea – On the port side of the Alan Kurdi rescue ship, a small Christmas tree glows with twinkling green and red lights – a small way for the crew, which includes 12 volunteers of 10 different nationalities, to celebrate the holiday.

The ship, operated by German charity Sea-Eye, set sail early on Wednesday from its dock in Sicily.

The crew’s goal is to save lives in the search-and-rescue area off the Libyan coast – the deadliest migration route in the world.

Since 2014, more than 19,000 men, women and children have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.

Salvador Perello, a lifeguard instructor from Valencia, Spain, is volunteering his time over the festive period. Along with general maintenance duties, he operates a rescue lifeboat during rescue operations.

“I don’t see refugees, I don’t see illegal persons, I only see people,” Perello told Al Jazeera. “And when you meet them you know that they’re like you, like my mother, like my daughter, like my friends and they are dying because Europe doesn’t want to help them.”

Alan Kurdi rescue ship
Salvador Perello on a rescue lifeboat during a rescue simulation in the port of Palermo [Sally Hayden/Al Jazeera]

In the summer, Perello volunteers on the Greek island of Lesvos, teaching refugee children and women to swim. Many have survived traumatic journeys in rubber boats, and he says the lessons are a form of healing.

The 50-year-old has given up every holiday since 2017 to help refugees.

“I’m not rich enough to come more, it’s impossible for me,” he said.

Caterina Ciufegni, a 35-year-old doctor on board the ship from Tuscany, Italy, said: “I think it’s a necessity. People are dying in the Mediterranean.”

Alan Kurdi rescue ship
Catherina Ciufegni, a doctor and Sea-Eye volunteer, on the Alan Kurdi rescue ship [Sally Hayden/Al Jazeera]

Ciufegni said she moved countries for her career.

“For me, it’s not OK that people coming from another part of this world don’t have that option. I don’t like [that] in this world there is so much inequality between people. We are exploiting Africa and Asia, other places, then we decide these people can’t choose another type of life. I don’t think it’s right,” she said.

“As a doctor, I am worried. These people are weak, they are sick, there are pregnant women, there are babies… It is very cold. They are a lot of people all together, they don’t have anything to drink.”

In the kitchen, where he volunteers as the cook, 76-year-old Hartmut Frank, a retired environmental chemistry and toxicology professor from Bayreuth, Germany who was once a military parachuter, said his Christian faith motivated him to volunteer.

Alan Kurdi rescue ship
Hartmut Frank, a retired professor, is the volunteer cook on board the Alan Kurdi rescue ship [Sally Hayden/Al Jazeera]

“It’s often nowadays a discussion about European values. The values are not destroyed by the migrants. We are destroying them ourselves,” he said.

Frank was unable to put his cooking skills to use on Wednesday, however. 

Shortly after the Alan Kurdi left port, several of the less experienced crew became seasick, including the cook himself.

Those who could still eat helped themselves to cheese and ham, bread or Koka noodles.

“I’m sorry, I’m hungry,” said captain Uwe Doll, eating goulash from a tupperware box as pots, pans and cutlery clattered from kitchen shelves behind him, some falling due to the motion of the heavy waves.

Jana Stallein, a 25-year-old film student from Dortmund, Germany, said: “I feel that if you have any skills that could help in this kind of situation then you should definitely use them.”

She had been looking for a way to help when a friend, who went on the Alan Kurdi last summer, recommended she apply.

Now volunteering as Sea-Eye’s media coordinator, she said most Europeans do not realise the scale of the crisis.

“It’s really important to be open to everyone so they see what’s going on, and they hear about the situation and realise it’s not far away, it’s very close.

“When I told my family and my friends about [coming], they were all worried, but they were all worried about me. And I said you don’t need to worry about me. I’ll be on a boat. I’m going to be safe… You should be worried about the people in the water.”

Alan Kurdi rescue ship
The Alan Kurdi, operated by German charity Sea-Eye, sailing out of the port of Palermo [Sally Hayden/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera